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The EEOC’s “Unique Role” Does Not Exempt The Agency From A 300-Day Limitations Period In Title VII Pattern Or Practice Cases

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In EEOC v. Princeton Healthcare System, No. 3:10-CV-04126-PGS-DEA, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150267 (D.N.J. Oct. 18, 2012), Judge Peter G. Sheridan of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey recently held that the EEOC must adhere to the 300-day limitations period as set forth by Section 706 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1984 when asserting a pattern or practice of unlawful employment action under Section 707 of Title VII. It is a significant case for employers, and adds to the growing body of case law rejecting the notion advanced by the Commission that it is unrestrained by any statute of limitations in pursuing its claims.

In the Princeton case, the EEOC filed a pattern or practice suit based on Section 706 and Section 707 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1984 against the employer, Princeton Healthcare System (“PHCS”), alleging violations the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Id. at *1. The EEOC’s suit rose from its investigation of two charges, one filed by Suzanne F. Nydick on July 31, 2007 alleging discrimination based on sex, and the other by Scott Satow on December 1, 2008 alleging that PHCS failed to offer reasonable accommodation. Id. at *2-3. The EEOC subsequently combined the investigation of Nydick’s and Satow’s charges and filed suit on behalf of Satow and a class of employees and former employees of PHCS based on Satow’s disability claims. Id. at *3.

During the litigation, the EEOC identified Susan Gilli, a former PHCS employee who was terminated in 2006, as a claimant in the action. Id. at *4. PHCS moved for partial summary judgment on all claims related to PHCS’s leave policy that alleged an adverse employment action occurring more than 300-days before the filing of the Satow Charge, including the claim by Gilli. Id. The EEOC argued in opposition to PHCS’s motion for summary judgment that the time for filing charges set forth in Section 706(e)(1) does not apply to lawsuits filed by the agency. Id. at *8. 

Recognizing “divergent rulings” on this issue, the Court found that it was “unable to accept the EEOC’s assertion that the statute of limitations found in Section 706(e)(1) does not apply to claims brought by the EEOC.” Id. at *9. Instead, Judge Sheridan reasoned that “Section 707 commands that parties adhere to the limitations set out in Section 706(e)(1), which clearly bar claims for failure to timely file charges.” Id. The Court then flatly rejected the EEOC’s oft-cited argument on this issue, stating: “[s]imply because the EEOC has a unique role compared to individual plaintiffs alleging unlawful employment practices does not exempt it from the rules plainly laid out in the controlling statutes. There is no sound reason to read exceptions into the statute which do not exist on its face.” Id. at *9-10.

 The EEOC also argued that the continuing violation doctrine should be utilized to render actionable incidents that predate the 300-day charging period.  Id. at *10. Recognizing a split in case law authority, the Court rejected the EEOC’s argument, citing National RR Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 113 (2002).  Id. In Morgan, the Supreme Court limited the applicability of the continuing violation doctrine, holding that “discrete discriminatory acts are not actionable if time barred, even when they are related to acts alleged in timely filed charges” because each discrete act starts a new clock running for filing a charge. Id. at *10-11. Accordingly, Judge Sheridan ruled that even in a pattern or practice case, “discrete decisions to terminate employment cannot be linked together to create a continuing violation, as a termination occurs on an identifiable date.” Id. at *12. The Court explained, “[t]he fact that this Section 707 action alleges a sort of serial violation involving discrete acts does not convert ‘related discrete acts into a single unlawful practice for purposes of timely filing.’” Id. Hence, the Court determined that “each employment termination by [PHCS], if unlawful, constitutes a distinct violation, and therefore the continuing violation doctrine does not apply.” Id. at *13.

EEOC v. Princeton Healthcare System is another decision that correctly rules that the EEOC is not exempt from the statute of limitations period set forth in 706(e)(1), and requires the EEOC to adhere to that 300-day limitations period in litigating pattern or practice lawsuits. In that respect, it should be tucked away for future use by corporate counsel and all employers facing EEOC litigation claims. The EEOC routinely attempts to litigate time-barred claims in cases across the country, and this ruling joins a growing body of case law that finds the limitations period applies to the EEOC and private plaintiffs alike.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.